Interview: Sparrow and the Workshop

sparrow workshopThis article originally appeared in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on May 2, 2013.

There are myriad striking lyrics in the new record from Glasgow blues-punk heartbreakers Sparrow and the Workshop. “If I had a dime for every time you lied,” goes one such melodic line, “I’d gather all my change, and throw it in your face.” And you’d be advised to heed such a threat, because singer-songwriter Jill O’Sullivan is not just one of our greatest pop voices; she’s also a world stone-skimming champion.

Comprising Belfast-born, Chicago-raised O’Sullivan, Welshman Nick Packer (bass / guitar) and local native Gregor Donaldson (drums), and formed though a Glasgow flat-share in 2008, Sparrow and the Workshop have long threatened to steal our hearts with their ecstatic fried-rock – to realise the thrilling potential that hung over their 2010 debut, Crystals Fall, and its 2011 follow-up, Spitting Daggers – and now the wait is up.

Their third album, Murderopolis, is roundly excellent, rousing and gorgeous, from country-noir serenade Water Won’t Fall, through shadowy blues-pop chorale Shock, Shock, to sublime post-rock lullaby Odessa. While their first two LPs were issued via London’s Distiller Records (run by the son of vacuum overlord James Dyson), Muderopolis comes courtesy of Edinburgh DIY label Song, By Toad (Meursault, Rob St John), which is something of a spiritual home for the trio: they recorded a live session for label boss Matthew Young’s Song, By Toad blog in 2008.

Produced by what O’Sullivan calls “the dream team” of Paul Savage (Delgados, The Phantom Band) with Iain Cook (Chvrches, The Unwinding Hours), Murderopolis is loud and raw, and it puts O’Sullivan’s remarkable voice – think Emmylou Harris, Stevie Nicks, Grace Slick – exactly where it should be: upfront. The album’s cover art asserts its earthly tone – a bright, bucolic setting, inscribed with the spectre of death (Murderopolis) – and the rest of the record follows suit, not least on the thundering psych-rock of Flower Bombs.

“Actually, almost all the album came out of this one riff on Flower Bombs,” offers O’Sullivan, who also performs with Body Parts and The Grand Gestures. “The chorus of Flower Bombs was one of the first things that we worked on and we had this riff, but we couldn’t figure out how to interpret it. So every time we met up, we’d be like, ‘will we try that one again?’ and we’d start with that riff, and it would strike something in someone – a bass-line or a drumbeat or another melody – and it’d lead us to another song. That one riff birthed so many ideas on the record, so many songs.”

Flower Bombs’ titular collision of nature and destruction casts lights on Sparrow and the Workshop’s knack for bright voices and dark words, for beatific murder ballads and brooding rockabilly psalms, while Murderopolis’ recurring fascination with life and its eventual passing is spelled out in the opening track – a rapturous dubh-wop eulogy called Valley of Death. “Yeah, we opened with that because it’s intense, but also because of the idea I was trying to get across which was, you know, ‘life’s too short’. What’s the point of fighting? You’re only going to regret it”, O’Sullivan says. “Valley of Death asks that question: is it really worth getting bent out of shape? What matters in life? What are the important things? Well, love.”

There is much to love on the album – the title track’s cinematic 50s cult-pop; the galloping Shangri-Las kiss-off on The Glue That Binds Us; the nostalgic swoon-rock of final track Autumn to Winter, which takes Murderopolis’ mortal captivation and hurls it skyward. As usual, O’Sullivan’s aim is spot-on; it makes for a heavenly swansong.

Murderopolis is out now via Song, by Toad.

Related Articles: Sparrow and the Workshop, Murderopolis – Album Review (The List Magazine)

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